“Back to the Future” – Korean adoption story

Written sometime in 2002., “Back to the Future” was my fave childhood movie about a young guy who goes back in time with a flying car. The best chilldhood movie ever made.

When the 747 Boeing finally put its wheels on the ground, I made a sigh of relief and stretched out my legs, finally moving after 4 hours of immobility. The plane slowly crawled as it looked for a gate to hug. Gazing through the window and thinking quietly, I wondered if this was really where my ticket stub stated. “Incheon, Korea. Arrival time: 3:37 pm.” If so, I had traveled roughly 7,000 miles from the other side of the world, 14 hours non-stop flight straight from Chicago, U.S.A. The plane paused and I waited to see if it finally stopped this time. Indeed, it stopped and passengers started to get up. I got up and reached for my North Face backpack in the overhead and stood impatiently as the line slowly made its way out of the plane. My hands began to sweat as I held my backpack and with almost every step, my heart started to beat faster, then into a pounding rhythm. I took a big breath and focused on where I was supposed to be going.

Any doubts of actually being in Korea were immediately put away when I saw the airport signs in Korean and couldn’t understand any of them. I followed a crowd of passengers as my guide to the baggage claims area and waited for my luggage to emerge. As I looked around the huge void and noticed that the airport wasn’t as crowded as many of the major U.S. airports were. I had expected a full traffic of people but here, only passengers were waiting to pick up their luggage.

Finally, my huge black luggage came out and I grasped it and rolled it off the smooth floor. All of the exit doors were closed except for double-side doors with a bright light shining through. I hauled my suitcase through that exit and outside the exit was all people waiting behind the hose line, controlled by security police. My eyes moved from left to right, scanning for something. Right at that moment, I saw my name sign. The person holding the sign was my sister and the three people standing next to her were my brother, mother and father. The long awaited moment had arrived—we were reunited as a family after more than 18 years apart.

As an adopted child, people often ask me this question, “Do you ever want to see your family?” Well, to me, it is almost like asking if you know when you will die. It carries almost the same uncertainty as in finding my family. Here is some of my explanation.

To start searching for my family, I would need to expend a great deal of efforts and do a lot of researching information given by the adoption service. For example, they don’t put down the biological parents’ names either because the parents do not wish to be named or some of the babies were found on streets without any names. Finding my biological parents would mean contacting certain people who handled my case as well as those who are expert in helping find lost families. Since I am deaf, such contacts would be more of a challenge for me, though not impossible. Meanwhile, I have wonderful adoptive parents who take such good care of me and raised me well. I don’t want to make them feel that I was ungrateful or that I wanted to run away to find my birth parents. Also, if I tried to find my family and there was a dead end to my search, which happened in many other cases, I would feel quite devastated and lost, without any hope of finding them one day. So, with all of that, it seems wise to not answer the question directly as to protect my well-being. I shrugged to the people who ask me, “I don’t know. Maybe someday.”

So, I made no specific plans to find them. Actually, in the back of my mind, I thought finding my family would be like locating a black pepper in a sack of rice. It seemed to me that fate alone would have a better chance than to be actually searching for them. One day I was surfing the Web and I came upon an article that talked about “Chaos Theory”. It talked about how something, no matter how small it is, can change the pattern of events and be responsible for that event. I remember that it had a simple yet descriptive concept: “A butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the planet can effect a hurricane on the other side.” This fascinated me and I wondered if little things we did could actually influence something else. Well, those thoughts were put into perspective when I met this college student named Soyeon who later became instrumental in helping me find my birth family.

We met in the dorm lounge where she was eating a bowl of kimchee ramen and I was doing my art project on a big table. At the time, 2000 Summer Olympics was taking place and we were watching the TV that showed the men’s volleyball game between South Korea and the U.S. We started to have a conversation and I found out that she was Korean too. As we were talking, she became more interested in my deafness and my adoption. Then she gave her word that she would try to help me find my birth family. And she did.

Ever since Soyeon helped me find my family, questions emerge in my head. Would I have been able to find my family if I had never met Soyeon? What would happen if we never had a conversation? What if the TV wasn’t showing the U.S.A/South Korea volleyball game and I didn’t ask her if she was Korean? There were a lot of “if” theories and I thought about the butterfly effect and all of those little things that counted. Then, the question came to my mind about how others would ask me if I wanted to find my family. I realize that I did want to because if I didn’t, my family would have never been found. As for Soyeon, she was simply the “butterfly” that led to my family.

“Oh my god, you’re here!”, “Let me touch you!”, “Are you all right!?”, were my mother’s first expressions when we were reunited. I was sure she was saying precisely that in Korean. There was a big smile and some tears on my sister’s face. Incredible or not, she was also born deaf, like me. Her sign language was Korean, KSL, but she signed a bit in ASL and introduced herself first, then my family. She signed she was very glad to see me and that she had been learning some ASL before my arrival. I was relieved that my sister knew some ASL as I was worrying over how we all would communicate. My older brother stood there, witnessing the emotions shared by our mother and sister, then he stepped in to shake my hand. There was my father standing by. He looked very different than in the pictures they sent me in letters not a long ago, and then I remembered in the letter that he was suffering some form of illness.

For some reason, I was reluctant to see him. Perhaps I was afraid that I would be able to tell he was the one who ultimately made the decision to give me up for adoption and that he paid greatly for it. Which he did. Soon however, the father came to hug me and gave me a pat on my shoulder. Then, the family turned their attention to my humongous black suitcase lying behind me like a piece of furniture and my brother remarked “Mother, you could fit easily in that suitcase!”. We all laughed together like a normal family. With all of us reunited, we got into a car and went to a place that would have been my “home” 18 years ago.

I was three years old when I was adopted but I did not have any recalls or memories of my family, so I was left with only my imagination. Throughout my life, I always felt that I was living without any past. One time in the elementary school, the teacher asked us to bring a baby picture and make a poster with it. Well, I was the only one without any baby picture and my classmates looked at me with pity—the one without a past.

We all know that time has three parts: the past, present, and the future. With the past missing in my life, I looked at the past like a lost sea where one wonders what is on the other side and can only stare longingly at the horizon. When I received news that my family was found, all of a sudden, I started to feel that the past was molding into a shape that gave way to the beginning of my life, almost like how a star was born. I realized that when I went to South Korea, I was flying over the sea to see the other side that I could only imagine before.

In the two weeks I stayed in Korea, I had the opportunity to see my birthplace which had unfortunately been torn down and new buildings were built over it, reminding me of how long it had been since I was there. I had a chance to meet many of my relatives and discovered that not only was I the youngest child but also the youngest cousin of the generation. It was a nice feeling to see how I was related to them by “who looks like whom”, our traits, and personalities, which was something I couldn’t do in any of my adopted family reunions. I met a cousin whom I imagined we would have been a close friend. I learned more about the Korean culture and how my back was kind of sore from bowing often to elderly citizens (just kidding). I ate kimchee and rice everyday, which can get quite boring especially after having eaten a wide variety of foods in America. I also saw some things that made me realize how hard my life would have been, had I never been adopted. At the same time, I felt very fortunate to have a chance to travel to Korea and meet my family. I was humbled by their unselfishness and they made a big sacrifice to give me up for adoption so that I would have a better life in America.

There was a part that brought out the wisdom in me when I saw my family for the first time. The mother kept asking me if I was all right and that I was not mad at them for giving me up. This was something that I never expected to be asked because I was quite happy to see them. Then, I realized that during the whole time I was living the dream of American life, the mother wondered…..and worried whether if she and the father had made the right decision for giving me up, all for 18 years. They were left only with wonderment while I was left with imagination. It was not till the reunion that I filled their wonderment with my future and they filled my imagination with their past.

When my visit to Korea came to an end, I felt like the past was dropping its drapes on me and that the lights were going to be shut off, no longer to be seen again. Time would shift back to the present. I realized that by the time 747 Boeing took off the ground, I was going back to the future. But I had something with me that I didn’t have when I was here: my past and my baby picture.

5 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Kim Symansky

    Kester, what a beautiful story! Goosebumps all over!! I pray for my children’s birth parents – I pray that they know in their hearts that their children are well loved, safe and happy here with me and Ron. There are viturally extreme slim and/or no chance for them to find their birth families, which I feel so sad for them. Maybe there is a way for them to be connected by superior technology on DNA or someone like your friend, Soyeon.
    Did you get the reason from your birth parents for placing you for the adoption? I have been reading books on adoption ~ Korean and Chinese birth mothers’ stories,grief, and hopes for their birth children. I always became emotional – shedding hundred tears! Smile..

    If you ever plan to write a book on your life story, can you please try to keep your birth parents as ‘birth’ parents instead ‘real’ parents? Your real parents are the ones who adopted, raised and provided you everything as possible. Seems like adoptive parents sometimes are labeled as the ‘imaginary’ parents ~ not “REAL” parents. The birth parents of course are real persons.. Hope you get what I meant without feeling insulted.

    Have a superb Thanksgiving!!!

  2. Debra Suzanne Garner

    I have deaf adopted chinese kids.. I wd love for them to see their birthparents in China.. Do u think is that possible for them to see their birthparents ? They have no history of parents home or place .. My kids were placed in the orphange home in Wuxi, China .. How it works they will start to find their parents ?

  3. natech

    Kim, you are absolutely correct about using ‘birth’ instead of ‘real’. I’ve already corrected those. It’s just that in ASL, we often sign ‘real’, not birth but we should start using birth, not real, though.

    The reason for giving me up was because someone told them that America has a better education for deaf children and that I would be properly cared for. My birth family was poor as they couldn’t even afford a hearing aid and after seeing how hard it was on their first daughter, they thought it would be for the best if they gave me up for adoption. Basically, they wanted me to have a better life. Big sacrifice. My dream would be to bring them here to America. I need to visit Korea soon again.

    Your children are very lucky to have you and Ron as their parents. Happy thanksgiving too!

  4. natech

    Debra, wow! another parents with adopted deaf children! well, it would be difficult to locate their birth parents without any kind of names or documents but not impossible since anything is possible. I was fortunate because my orphanage has the names and address of my birth parents so it was not difficult to reach them. There should be an agency that specilizes in finding their birth families. You can start by contacting the orphanage to see if they have any more information on your children or research on finding an agency to help you.

  5. Oh, man, one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Well done, Nate! Thanks for the great read.

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